22 November 2017

Walks, past and present

When I lived in Paris, Washington (D.C.), and in Champaign-Urbana (Illinois), I spent a good part of my day, every day, walking. In all those places, I could walk to work every day, and walk back home at night. We're talking about the years from 1971 until 1986.

You can tell these are old pictures, because that's Callie the collie in the one above. She died last June.

Wow, 15 years. Now we've lived in Saint-Aignan for nearly 15 years, and I still take a long walk every day — with the dog. An afternoon walk one day, and then a morning walk the next. Repeat repeat repeat.

We walk down and around — which means walking back up.

In the years from 1986 to 2003, we lived in the San Francisco area in California. For most of those years — at least 15 out of the 17 or more we spent out there — it seems like all I did was drive around in my car. Commuting. The scenery was a freeway and thousands of cars, not vines and woods. I grew to despise that life.

On some mornings we see a nice sunrise.

I'll tell you: walking is better. It's less dangerous, to start with. It's less expensive (though you might go through many pairs of shoes). And you feel better about your life and your health. The pictures here show you some scenes from my daily walks.

Finally, here's a map of the short walk I plan to take with Natasha in a few minutes. It starts at the back door of our house and ends at the front door. It's only about a kilometer (six-tenths of a mile) — a loop around our hamlet and a couple of vineyard plots. Many of our walks are longer, but this will do for today.

21 November 2017

Prickly pear cactus

Cactus plants are native to the Americas, and the one below is growing on a street corner, across the intesection from a church, in Morehead City, North Carolina. It's called a prickly pear cactus.

When you think of American cacti, you probably think of the arid southwestern part of the United States, and not the humid Atlantic coast. But prickly pear species (Opuntia) are native to the East Coast from Florida north to at least New York. Another local cactus is  a small plant we call a pear pad. You have to be careful not to step on one when you are going around barefoot on sandy ground.

Above is a close-up of the same plant. The climate of coastal North Carolina is hot compared to Saint-Aignan's, and it's characterized not by persistent dampness but by heavy downpours of rain year-round, alternating with bright sunshine. I guess the cactus plants like that kind of climate and the area's sandy soil.

20 November 2017

Raclette for lunch

Raclette means "scraper" or "squeegee" — from the French verb racler meaning "to scrape," including "to scrape off" or "scrape out." Said that way, it doesn't sound like a very appetizing idea for lunch, does it?

Above is an appareil à raclette. Un appareil is an apparatus or appliance. This one is basically an electric heating element with little non-stick pans that slide under it and a griddle over the top. What do you scrape? Well, you put a slice of cheese in each little pan, set it under the hot element, and wait for it to melt. Then you scrape the melted cheese out onto your plate.

In fact, a raclette is a lunch or dinner of melted cheese served with meats and vegetables, especially steamed potatoes. It's a do-it-yourself kind of meal. It's self-service. Each diner or convive (dinner guest) melts her or his own cheese and serves his or her own meats and potatoes. Thus, in France it's seen as a repas convivial — a convivial meal, fun, friendly, and informal. No real ceremony is involved. The cheese is also called raclette, and it melts into a soft creamy mass.

Fromage à raclette is pretty good, with the right charcuterie (cold cuts) and warm cooked potatoes. For our recent raclette meals, with ours we've had the Alpine jambon cru called speck, saucisson à l'ail (cooked garlic sausage), the salami called rosette, and of course cornichons (pickles), both the classic little French vinegary ones known as gherkins, as well as the new-comers to France, cornichons aigres-doux (sort of like dill pickles). And good bread, of course.

When people used to cook in fireplaces rather than on modern appliances, they would put a big wheel of cheese on a special stand close to the fire and wait for the cheese to start melting. Then they would scrape the melted cheese off the cut side of the cheese wheel onto plates and take them to the table, where meats, potatoes, and pickles were waiting (along with hungry convives). That's the legend, anyway. Images here.

19 November 2017

A custard tart called « flan pâtissier »

So this has turned out to be a food weekend. In other words, cooking has taken up much of my time. I figure all the leaves that need to be raked up out in the yard can just wait. No rain is predicted for the coming week, and the temperature on Thanksgiving Day, this coming Thursday, is predicted to be in the mid- to upper 60s in ºF (about 18 ºC). That'll be perfect weather for raking up leaves and carrying them out to the vegetable garden plot as mulch.

So what did I cook yesterday? Dessert. A pastry concoction that's called a flan pâtissier. It's not like a Mexican flan, which is called a crème caramel in France. It's more like a custard tart or a chess pie.

The cream custard is thickened with cornstarch and eggs, and flavored with a touch of vanilla. Cornstarch is an American term, I think, and it French it's called fécule de maïs or amidon de maïs and often goes by the best-known brand name, Maïzena. In the U.K., it might be called corn or maize flour.

Here's the recipe for the flan, which is a standard item in French pâtisseries (pastry shops). You often by it buy it by the slice (une part, deux parts, etc. de flan), and if you've ever spent much time in France you must know it. Okay, here are two recipes, actually, if you want to make your own crust.

Flan pâtissier

1 pre-cooked pie crust
1 liter of crème fraîche liquide (heavy cream)
150 g sugar (⅔ cup)
100 g cornstarch (1 scant cup)
3 eggs
½ tsp. vanilla extract

Mix the cornstarch into ¾ cup of cold cream, stirring well. Bring the rest of the cream to a simmer in a large saucepan. Stir in the vanilla extract.

Separately, beat the eggs with the sugar. Add in the cold cream and cornstarch mixture. Then gradually pour in the hot cream, stirring constantly. Be careful not to add it too fast because you might curdle the eggs.

Pour the egg and cream mixture back into the saucepan and set it on low heat, stirring constantly with a whisk until it's well thickened and close to starting to boil.

Line a pie pan with the crust. Pour in the thickened custard mixture. Bake for 30 to 40 minutes at 325ºF (160ºC). Keep an eye on the flan for the last 10 minutes of cooking to make sure it doesn't get too brown on top. Serve cold.

I thought the flan would be good with a crust called pâte sablée, which might be described as a cookie-dough crust, rather than with a standard pie crust ("shortcrust" or pâte brisée). Here's the recipe I followed.

Pâte sablée
250 g of flour (2 cups)
130 g sugar (4 or 5 fl. oz.)
1 egg
100 g butter (7 Tbsp.)
1 pinch salt

First, melt the butter and let it cool slightly.

Next, stir the sugar and egg together. Add a pinch of salt and stir in the flour (I used a stand mixer).  Finally, pour in the melted butter and mix well to form a smooth dough.

Put the ball of dough into a pie pan and spread it using your fingers to cover the bottom and sides of the dish. Prick the crust with a fork and bake it for 10 minutes at 375ºF (190ºC).

You could let this "sugar-crust" dough rest in the refrigerator for a while and then roll it out, but I think it's quicker and easier to press it into the pie plate using your hands. Patch as needed.

18 November 2017

Food, anyone? Let's have chicken.

Life goes on. We've had a série noire of unexpected and therefore unplanned house repairs and maintenance issues over the past few weeks. Warning lights have come on in cars, drains have started to overflow, computers have gone down, debit cards have been deactivated, lights have suddenly gone dark, leaks have sprung, and the power has failed... For too long, it has seemed never-ending. The good news is that it feels like the situation is coming back to normal now.

So what are hapless homeowners to do? Eat, that's what. Healthy food, if possible, with wine and bread. One wintertime dish (these are dark, chilly, foggy days here in northern France) is the classic poule au pot — a chicken in the pot. In other words, a one-pot boiled dinner of chicken with flavorful vegetables including leeks, carrots, onions, potatoes, and turnips or parsnips. Nowadays, the pot you cook the chicken and vegetables in is likely to be a modern one: a slow-cooker or mijoteuse. And you're more likely to be cooking a tender chicken (un poulet) than a tough old stewing hen (une poule). So it's a poulet à la mijoteuse rather than a poule au pot. Adjust the cooking time accordingly.

Put the chicken or stewing hen into the slow-cooker crock along with some leeks, carrots, and onions. Add black peppercorns, allspice berries (piment de la Jamaïque), two or three whole cloves, and a teaspoon of dried thyme for extra flavor (I put them all in a spice ball). Pour on water and maybe some white wine, and throw in a couple of bay leaves. Cover the chicken with liquid if you can, or not entirely if there isn't enough room in the crock (it will still cook). Turn the slow-cooker on low and let the bird cook for four or five hours, until it and the vegetables are done.

Now you have a big slow-cooker crock full of good chicken broth as well as a tender chicken and some tender vegetables. Toward the end of the cooking time, you can add vegetables like turnips, parsnips, and potatoes to the crock. Or you can cook them separately — in a steamer, for example.

To the left is the chicken as it looked when it came out of the slow-cooker after about five hours of simmering at low temperature.

Here's a finishing touch. Put the cooked chicken in a baking dish, surround it with cooked vegetables, spoon a little of the chicken broth over all, being sure to get some of the fat floating on the surface of the liquid. Set the dish in a hot oven for 30 to 45 minutes, keeping an eye on it so it doesn't burn. Let it brown though.

Optionally, you can also make gravy (in the form of a velouté sauce) with butter, flour, and the broth. Another option is to serve rice and the gravy with the chicken and vegetables instead of potatoes.